The Yale Jazz Ensemble will hold its season-opener tonight in Sprague Hall’s Morse Recital Hall, performing music by Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Maria Schneider, Phil Woods and Benny Golson.

The big band will include both undergraduates and School of Music graduate students, and will be led by Music Director Thomas C. Duffy. In an interview with the News, Duffy said the ensemble will perform an unconventional arrangement of the Charles Mingus piece “Meditations for Moses.” Originally composed for piano, the Mingus piece was later expanded into an arrangement for big band. Elliot Connors ’20, a member of the trumpet section, said playing an arranger’s version of “Meditations for Moses” provides insight into Mingus’ compositional process and the way the composer conceptualized the musical parts working together in the piece.

“Our program is an interesting menu of a variety of styles of jazz music, and music for big band,” Duffy said.

Connors said that the fluid transition he sees from one piano to the 18 players in a big band speaks to the complexity of the harmonies in the Mingus piece.

“For people not necessarily into straight ahead jazz, ‘Meditations for Moses’ is interesting because it incorporates a lot of different styles into one piece,” Connors said.

“Meditations for Moses” will feature a solo by alto saxophonist Hersh Gupta ’20, who said that improvising his solo requires creating a narrative out of a short theme that makes the solo comprehensible and unified.

Gupta added that while playing his solo, he must think about its structure and ensure that each musical idea has “time to dissipate” before he introduces a new one.

The ensemble will also play “Dance You Monster to My Soft Song” by Maria Schneider, a Grammy-winning contemporary jazz composer and big band leader. According to Connors, the piece includes many intricate parts that, when combined, create a “powerful narrative.”

Duffy described the Schneider piece as “meditative” at the beginning, with a transformation into an upbeat Latin-inspired ending.  

The program will also feature Phil Woods’ “Randi,” which Duffy described as a “lovely ballad.” “Randi” begins with a solo for the saxophone section that Gupta said establishes the mood for the rest of the piece.

Working on this opening portion of the piece with just the group’s five saxophonists allowed the musicians to practice creating a warm and blended tone, Gupta said. He added that producing the warm sound the saxophonists look for relies partly on bringing out the lowest saxophone voice — the baritone saxophone — whose deeper tone “fills out” the chords the group plays.   

Connors emphasized the importance of the bass voices, adding that the lowest voice is often “responsible for the movement of the lines from chord to chord.”

The ensemble’s program will end with an arrangement of Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol’s “Caravan(s).” Gupta cited Ellington as one of the founders of big band jazz, and emphasized the importance of Ellington’s legacy in jazz music to this day. He characterized the arrangement of the piece as the combination and development of several interpretations of Ellington’s tune.

Connors said the mix of graduate students and undergraduates in his section has improved his trumpet playing. With the help of the classically trained graduate students he works alongside, he said, he has been able to find melody and emotion in the sometimes sparse accompanimental figures he plays.

The Yale Jazz Ensemble is one of three groups in the Yale Bands community.

Julia Carabatsos |